A cohort of 123 Harvard first-years embarked on a variety of service projects this summer, from improving community gardens to educating unhoused women and children about hurricane preparedness, as part of the College’s SPARK program. Participants in the three-year-old initiative, housed at the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship, design and implement proposals in their hometowns prior to arriving on campus. Each spends 100 hours over six weeks on their projects, including time for discussions with faculty, staff, and student leaders involved in community service on campus. The Gazette spoke to eight students about their work and the unique challenges created by the pandemic.
Rochester, New York
Rochester Community Inclusive Rowing
Daniel Villani, whose range of motion is limited due to cerebral palsy, had his first lesson at Rochester Community Inclusive Rowing (RCIR) in 2016. He was hesitant about learning to scull — rowing with one oar in each hand — because of his physical challenges, but instructors encouraged him to continue, in keeping with the organization’s mission of inclusion and adaptability.
RCIR offers free rowing opportunities to veterans, people with disabilities, those experiencing mental illness, and anyone who faces a “challenge,” said Villani.
Five years later, Villani is able to move his left wrist — which he was previously unable to do — and has overall greater range of motion. He wanted to ensure that more people in his hometown would be able to participate in the “unparalleled” experience of being on the water at RCIR, and he also wanted to find a way to give back to the organization. So Villani spent his summer developing materials for a fundraising campaign for RCIR, which included managing a GoFundMe page and creating a promotional video.
“RCIR was founded with a mission to help bring adaptive rowing to Rochester and to provide opportunities for anybody to experience the magical, life-changing properties rowing can have,” said Villani. “It’s been really nice to be able to help them change other people’s lives like they’ve changed mine.”
Alphania Muthee, who lives in Nairobi, started working earlier this year with the Shamiri Institute, a local nonprofit that develops interventions to improve mental well-being among sub-Saharan African youth, because she knew that many of her peers were struggling with similar issues.
“Many students in our country have depression and anxiety and will not get help because of the stigma surrounding the issue,” said Muthee. “They know that if they decide to get help, they may be made fun of by their peers, or maybe not get the kind of help that they require.”
As a SPARK fellow, she developed and ran workshops for high school students to dispel myths about mental illness and offered resources for participants to share with friends and families.
“Many of the students are very open to the content, and when they hear that I was in high school recently, most of them feel like I can relate to them,” said Muthee. “I hope the program helps the students become better ambassadors of mental health.”
Being in SPARK also gave Muthee an opportunity to stretch herself, knowing that she would have support if she ran into thorny challenges.
“This project pushed me beyond my comfort zone, because I was conceptualizing something from scratch. But in SPARK, you have people to help you with it,” she said. “Hearing from other SPARK students motivates me to think of other ways to help my own community.”